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Martin v. Bringham

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 12, 2019

ELIJAH T. BRINGHAM, et al., Defendants.



         This case is before the court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Count Two of Plaintiff's Complaint. (Doc. # 5). The Motion has been fully briefed (Docs. # 11, 12) and is ripe for decision. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that Defendants' Motion is due to be granted.

         I. Background

         On January 15, 2017, Plaintiff Shannon Lea Martin was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.[1] (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 2; Doc. # 5-1). She was arrested by two Gardendale Police Officers, Elijah Bringham and Stephen Eason (collectively, “Defendants”). (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 2-3). Plaintiff alleges that she was sitting in a parked vehicle adjusting her clothing, when Defendants approached her car and demanded she take a breathalyzer test and walk in a straight line. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5). Plaintiff claims that Defendants then placed her in handcuffs with her hands behind her back and seated her in the back seat of their patrol car. (Id. at ¶ 6).

         Plaintiff alleges that while she was sitting in the back of the patrol car, the handcuffs came off of her right hand. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8). She asserts that she made no attempt to resist or escape, but raised her right hand to inform Defendants that the handcuff had come off. (Id. at ¶ 8). According to Plaintiff, Defendant Bringham grabbed her by the arm, pulled her out of the patrol car in a standing position, and “slammed [her] head into the door frame of the car severely injuring her left eye.” (Id. at ¶¶ 10-12). Plaintiff further contends that both Defendants “seized [her] and shoved [her] into the ground slamming her into the pavement of the parking lot.” (Id. at ¶ 13). Defendants reapplied the handcuffs while her stomach was pressed to the pavement. (Id. at ¶ 14). Finally, Plaintiff alleges that before she was taken to the Gardendale Jail, the Gardendale Police Department transported her to UAB Hospital to receive treatment for her injuries. (Id. at ¶ 17).

         On April 21, 2017, the Gardendale Municipal Court found Plaintiff guilty of driving under the influence. (Doc. # 5-1 at 3). Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed her Notice of Appeal with the circuit court. (Id. at 1-2).

         Plaintiff raises two claims against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. First, she claims that while acting under color of law, Defendants violated her constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive or unreasonable force during an arrest. (Id. at ¶¶ 19-24). Second, she alleges that Defendants “intentionally committed acts that violated [her] constitutional right not to be arrested without probable cause…by arresting [her] without probable cause.” (Id. at ¶¶ 25-29).

         II. Analysis

         In their Motion to Dismiss, Defendants argue that Count Two of Plaintiff's Complaint is barred by the Supreme Court's ruling in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 (1994) because her claim is not yet ripe for adjudication. (Doc. # 5 at 2). The court agrees that Count Two is not properly before the court at this time because Plaintiff's appeal is still pending before the state circuit court. However, Defendants' argument is perhaps better framed as a jurisdictional issue governed by the Younger abstention doctrine.[2] Accordingly, after careful review, the court finds that Count Two is due to be dismissed without prejudice based on abstention grounds.

         A. Heck v. Humphrey

         In Heck v. Humphrey, the Supreme Court found that a § 1983 plaintiff cannot recover damages[3] for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction, unless she has shown “that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” 512 U.S. at 486-87. “A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.” Id. at 487 (emphasis in original). If a favorable judgment for the plaintiff would “necessarily imply the invalidity of [her] conviction or sentence…the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated.” Id. While the court agrees with Defendants that Plaintiff's requested relief in Count Two “necessarily impl[ies] the invalidity of [her] conviction, ” Plaintiff's currently pending appeal for a trial de novo removes this claim from the grasp of the Heck bar.

         To determine whether the Heck bar applies to Fourth Amendment illegal arrest claims, courts “must look both to the claims raised under § 1983 and to the specific offenses for which the § 1983 claimant was convicted.” Vickers v. Donahue, 137 Fed.Appx. 285, 290 (11th Cir.2005) (internal quotations omitted). Plaintiff's conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol would necessarily be invalidated by a finding that the arrest was made without probable cause. More specifically, Plaintiff challenges the very existence of evidence justifying her arrest, and by extension, her potential conviction. If there was no basis for Defendants to approach Plaintiff, the arrest on which Plaintiff's conviction stands would be improper.

         However, Defendants' argument falters under closer scrutiny of the condition precedent to the application of the Heck bar-whether Plaintiff can demonstrate that her conviction has already been reversed or invalidated. Plaintiff asserts that her DUI “conviction has, in effect, been reversed by direct appeal because the filing of the appeal itself vacates the conviction.” (Doc. # 11 at 1-2). Plaintiff filed her appeal under Alabama Code § 12-14-70 (1975), which states that all appeals of municipal court convictions must be made to the circuit court for a trial de novo. A trial de novo means “the prior convictions are accorded no weight or effect, the presumption of innocence is restored, and the State bears its burden anew to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Whitlow v. City of Sumiton, 2012 WL 4479269, at *5 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 31, 2012) (finding plaintiff's municipal court convictions to be of “questionable legal significance” once she perfected her appeal, but dismissing § 1983 claim on alternative grounds). Thus, the very nature of a trial de novo implies that “[t]he appeal when taken operates to annul and vacate the entire judgment of the justice of the peace.” Wheat v. State, 907 So.2d 461, 462 (Ala. 2005) (emphasis removed) (quoting Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Lancaster, 121 Ala. 471, 473-74 (1899)). In light of this precedent, there is a substantial question as to whether Defendants are entitled to a dismissal of Count Two based solely on Heck, because her appeal to the circuit court for a trial de novo invalidated Plaintiff's conviction.

         B. Application of the Younger ...

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